18Brett Leason
Photo Credit: Robert Murray/WHL

2019 NHL Draft Scout Series: Western Canada

For years now, I’ve run a series on the Nation Network called the NHL Draft Scout Series leading up to the NHL Entry Draft. The general gist of it is as follows: I “sit down” with amateur scouts from the different prospect regions around the globe to get an up-close and personal look at the best prospects they have to offer. It always seems to be well received and offers a different, more intimate vantage point on a draft class than you might get from mainstream prospect coverage. I’m excited to return it for another year.

This year, the areas of focus will be the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, USA Hockey, Finland, Sweden, Europe in general, and Western Canada, with which we start with today. Justin Froese is the Head of Western Scouting for FutureConsiderations.ca, and joins us to talk about the Western Hockey League and Western Canada’s entry into the 2019 NHL Draft as a whole.

Let’s get into it.

Christian Roatis: This crop of draft eligible WHLers is notably strong, especially after a few relative down years, and looks to feature a few potential stars. How would you characterize this WHL draft class as a whole?

Justin Froese: In my time at FC, which is now a six year spread, I have seldom seen the top tier of the draft board this congested with Western flavour. We’ve seen recent years of high selections opening eyes much like [Sam] Reinhart and [Leon] Draisaitl along with [Jake] Virtanen and [Haydyn] Fleury in 2014 followed by [Nolan] Patrick, [Cale] Makar, [Cody] Glass and [Michael] Rasmussen as top 10 players in 2017 but 2019 has the potential to exceed those numbers. While the amount of first rounders may not really be huge after the slam dunk five are selected, there are lots of strong players at varying points in their development littered throughout our list who should see their names called late in and after round one. There’s a definite group within our top 10 and without a doubt a few surprises are going to be in store after that. Goaltenders and centers really take the glory in what should be a statement year for the Western Canadian leagues.

Bowen Byram started the year as Future Considerations’ top ranked draft eligible WHLer. He slipped mid-season, before regaining his form atop the class. What led to his dip in ranking, and what type of player do you see a team having in Byram? Can he be that stud number one defenceman every team covets?

Bowen really had an interesting year to me and at first glance in some early viewings he simply looked as though he was a dynamic offensive player who could dictate play but struggled within his defensive zone where he simply wasn’t effectively reading play or being honest with the effort that was going in. While I saw the flashes of upside, he seemed incomplete and he became a frequent follow up as I wanted to make sure we were getting the 411 on which way he was trending. At the end of the day he spiked in a positive direction for us and consistently elevated his play in both zones and for my money was one of the leagues best players down the stretch and through the playoffs. He’s grown into a confident game changer who is an elite skater that can hurt a team with any one of his tools and showed me that he can clamp down to provide a stingy defensive presence who brings a strong IQ and physical element to the table. I feel he has shown he is the real deal and will change a a franchises fortune with the upside to be an elite pro who can contribute and log a pile of minutes.

Peyton Krebs, Kirby Dach and Dylan Cozens are your next three WHLers, ranked at six, seven and 10 respectively. The three forwards have jostled for position near the top of everyone’s rankings all year, and the debate seems far from over. How do the three compare to each other, and why did you settle on ranking them the way you did?

This was a highly debated topic from day one and it will be come draft day and for 5-10 years down the road. The differences between the three centers are notable in their style of play but when it comes down to the overall ranking of them, it’s razor thin and a matter of who we felt would have the biggest impact in a teams lineup and who is the type of player that we see being key to building a championship team. If I’m not mistaken, we went against the grain and had Krebs as our top player after a lot of views and a lot of debate on our philosophical stances on each individual. Krebs is a workhorse, a high end two way player who brings a tonne of skill to the table. I was impressed with how he performed on a nightly basis and handled being a star player on a skeleton roster who happened to be in the midst of a state of flux prior to the official announcement of the team’s relocation to Winnipeg. The theory I had when I watched him was that he showed so much promise to do more but that his game was so detail oriented by being a responsible leader that his dynamic side was often overlooked. My belief is that once he is surrounded by players who have a similar mental aptitude and skill level that his game will really hit another level. At that point he won’t have to play a game that seemed self governed in comparison to his peers who had a bit more support and freedom. His ability to rise to the challenge and lead like he did at the top prospects game, Hlinka and recent U-18s is indicative of what he is capable of.

Dach was the player who was number one in the region for a long time but simply fell out of favour do to his inability to show how he could be impactful consistently. His combination of size and skill is top five caliber, he is a cerebral playmaker, a heady defender and has elements to his game that can pull fans from their seats with some of his incredible sequences. Despite the package and the tangible assets the deterrent was that his game has far too many peaks and valleys between viewings and shifts. Insight into his work ethic kind of tarnished his reputation a bit and for every strong play he made there was a one-to-one ratio of where he was guilty of a selfish play or failed to compete to the point where he withdrew emotionally from games and became a passenger. Although a strong playoff run and a more mature approach to handling adversity gave me some hope, there are red flags to go along with a promising player.

Cozens is a somewhat of a hybrid of the two but is far less subtle in his approach. He’s a big framed two way player who checks a lot of boxes and is an equal threat to pass or shoot and isn’t afraid to drive the net. He’s a smart player but as far as creativity goes he isn’t on the same level as the other two. He reminds me of a Nolan Patrick type at this level in how he doesn’t seem flashy, but he can pile up a quiet multi point night and not really seem like he’s stirring the drink. That being said, the way I see him is more of a secondary player at his peak than someone who will be a be a top line driving force. He has all the elements to be successful but his game doesn’t get too high or too low in terms of urgency and he is at his best when he can sort through the play and have others alleviate the pressure so he can pick his spots. I don’t believe it’s a knock on him as a player, but more what the strengths of his game have him geared towards.

Brett Leason is trying to accomplish what few have: become a first round pick their third time through the draft. What has Leason done this year to solidify himself as a potential Top 31 pick, and what makes him different from other older prospects who torch the WHL as older players?

It was definitely a shocking revelation and a great story line to follow this season as Leason simply blew away any expectations to put his name on the map. The biggest part of his game that changed from years prior was his skating and how he unhitched the plow to become a guy who could use the skills he had developed with newly found time and space. His power output in his skating and ability to use his body to generate room has been huge for him and he has accelerated his development from a stagnant prospect to one whose progression has spiked like no other. I really like how well rounded he has become and has a very translatable game as a 200 foot contributor. I think the reason he is viewed so differently is that his ascension in his development is to a point that it put him back on par with some of the top players not only in this draft class and major junior but also amongst some of the top 1999 players in the world from the draft class he was bypassed in initially. It’s never an easy to task to benchmark overage players in a draft class where they are more physically  and mentally mature than comparable players but his abilities are legitimate and he has the IQ and room to keep getting better. His case is rare, but I believe he has justified a billing as a top prospect.

Matthew Robertson seems to the next man up after Bowen Byram for best defenceman in this year’s WHL crop, ranked 19th (22 spots ahead of the next WHL rearguard). He’s regarded by most as a two-way defenceman, but there seem to be some questions regarding his offensive upside. Do you share those concerns? Do you think he has the potential to be a top pairing defenceman in the NHL, or is a middle of the rotation spot more likely?

I’m a big fan of Robertson’s abilities and he thoroughly impressed me every time I saw him. When looking at him I see an intelligent player who can consistently get out ahead of the play all over the rink and play with a tonne of poise whether with the puck or on the defensive side of the play.  While he does tend to stretch the ice and jump into the play off the offensive line time to time I think he is best suited to be a game manager rather than a game breaker. His combination of smoothness, skill and size is really attractive and he has the upside to be a key cog on a defensive core, although I don’t think he will ever consistently be touch elite numbers. He could be a strong partner for a more pure offensive player, but I have no issue taking a projectable player with that top four upside where we have him ranked as he has a relatively high floor.

Dustin Wolf doesn’t seem to get the respect he deserves for the numbers he’s put up. Seems difficult to think anyone could fill Carter Hart’s shoes in Everett, but Wolf has done just that, after being excellent in a backup role the year prior. FC has goaltender Spencer Knight ranked just outside the first round, despite far worse numbers than Wolf. What’s holding him back, and how do you project Wolf at the pro level?

Personally, I believe that gauging the statistical performance of prospects as the main justification of their rankings is a good way to find yourself out of a job. While certain metrics and analysis can give the ability to compare players across multiple tiers based on their performances, scouting is a metaphorical onion with a lot of layers to evaluate. Enter this debate between two of the top performing players at the goaltender position in the class. While they are both bonafide starters and workhorses who are strong at their craft, there are differences that separate them in our rankings. Knight is a goaltender who has all the components and frame to be an easy transition to the pro game. There are a few performances each goalie likes to have back over the course of a season, but overall in his body of work you see a player who is projectable to stick in the NHL, barring of course any extrinsic variables that may prevent that. Wolf on the other hand is a tad harder to project. You hate to say it, but there is a bias against smaller players and he has that tag attached to him despite his dominance at major junior. He’s a dynamic player who has found a technique that works for him at the major junior level, but will force him to work even harder to stick with the speed of the game going forward. While there are many similarities in their skill sets, as the difficulty level of hockey ratchets up going forward, I feel Wolf will have a more of a challenge to adapt. I for one hope he proves us wrong and outplays his placement.

Every draft produces a number of diamonds in the rough – high potential players that can be had in the later rounds because there’s plenty of work to do to reach that potential. Who do you consider this WHL’s draft class’ diamond(s) in the rough, and why?

There’s quite a few names we could list here and I will touch briefly on each. Brayden Tracey made me a believer over the year as his development from a pedestrian start was fascinating to watch. By years end he became a member of of the most potent line in the WHL and then went on to make himself known on the main stage by having a successful U-18. The scary thing about him is that a lot of his success was buoyed by his smarts more than a dynamic ability. With still a lot of growth potential, who knows what kind of threat he is once he matures. Adam Beckman has a much similar story, although I think he maybe doesn’t have the same crafty ability as Tracey but is more of a straight line finisher. He has a road to climb much like every kid going through the process but with his IQ and touch, he could convert his skill set and round out to be an offensive producer. On the back end I’m a big believer in Gianni Fairbrother’s growth and upside as a two way defender as he really established himself as a difference maker amongst veteran presence on the Silvertips. He’s unsung and doesn’t blow you away but he’s a details guy who plays tough, skates well and makes a lot of smart reads that allows him to play tight D and get pucks on net to or teammates.

Which draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season in Western Canada?

Outside of the obvious in Tracey and Leason who we already touched on, the guy who really was a pleasant surprise is a guy who rose to prominence in Victoria of the BCHL, Alexander Campbell. He’s a highly aware, smaller skill guy who can wheel to push pace but also plays fearless and works his tail off away from the puck. He was on the back burner when scouts were looking at [Alex] Newhook earlier in the season but his impressive play and ability to not only stay consistent but outperform his highly touted teammate in many viewings raised eyebrows. He’s got a legitimate shot to be a strong value pick in the mid rounds.

Who has been your biggest disappointment?

I think if you poll every guy on our roster staff, the answer will be Josh Williams. We all remember the summer of 2018 where he and the rest of the highly touted western skaters steamrolled through the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament with Williams starring as triggerman in the top six. Fast forward 10 months and his game just hasn’t materialized at the WHL level as he was demoted to a bottom six role and then traded to the Oil Kings at the deadline where he still couldn’t claw his way up the lineup. While he could still figure things out, the holes in his game glared through every viewing and there were games where the notepad was nearly empty because he just wasn’t able to put himself on the map. While it’s clear he does have the hands to create and finish, he lacks separation speed, creativity and the intensity to utilize his skill and be hard to play against when he doesn’t have the puck.

If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated prospect (in the public forum) for this year’s draft from the WHL, who would they be?

I think people have started to figure him out a little more as the year dragged on, but Nolan Foote has buyer beware written all over him. He, like Williams was once touted as a first rounder but besides pedigree, a pro caliber shot, some grit and size, he lacks a lot of elements to make him a successful pro. Guys who can score at a high rate are always looked at and that’s something he can do as he’s good at finding his spots but he needs to put in a lot of work to round his game and improve his mechanics. Taylor Gauthier is my runner up here as I really struggle to see how his style and skill set is is considered to be superior to other eligible goalies in the region such as Mads Sogaard, Trent Miner and Dustin Wolf.

Cole Moberg is a guy who I heard crickets about all year despite showcasing the characteristics of a raw, offensive minded defender in a situation where he was one of the best players on a retooling team. The knock on Moberg that I came across is that his skating mechanics are a little rough around the edges despite good linear speed and he gets caught running around in his own zone try to put out fires when pressure is sustained. Despite some notable flaws, his defensive game and pace is not all that bad. He’s a deceptive playmaker who shows good patience and impulse from his own end out with the puck on his stick. I think his mind is in the right place to overcome some of his obstacles and I feel he could eventually be the best player out of the Prince George market in this draft year.

Lastly, who is your favourite eligible from the region and why?

The slam dunk answer is Peyton Krebs, but since we’ve touched there I’ve got to go with a homer pick in Brandon’s Ben McCartney. Having gone to the majority of home games this season, I had a front row seat in watching this kid put all he had on the line every night. He gets a reputation as a cannonball type player who travels with high end linear speed and goes hard to the net, but he also has the hands and creativity to call an audible on the fly that with throw defenders and goalies alike clean off his intentions. He is highly aggressive off the puck, a strong play reader and grew in leaps and bounds as he became a more cerebral, impact player. He reminds me a lot of a Blake Coleman of the New Jersey Devils, but when in discussion with a regarded NHL scout he stated McCartney was 10 times the player at the same stage. Take it as you will.

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        • cjc

          The return on those guys was low for a couple reasons. Both had NTCs, so both could dictate their destination (particularly Iggy). That brought the price down considerably. Of course neither Poirier or Klimchuck worked out, but the return was about what anyone should expect in that situation. It sucks, but they held on too long before trading them in both cases.

          • freethe flames

            Indeed; it also appears that the shelves on the draft table between 20-27 were pretty weak as lots of that group have yet to find an NHL home. So again do I want 2 B prospects like we got then or bottom 3 forward but an NHLer.

  • Just.Visiting

    Very helpful insights in the article. I wonder if Krebs might drop as a result of his achilles injury. Leason continues to intrigue me. His skating looked fine on his highlight film.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I thought his skating looked good, so I tried to find some old video ( pre 2018) but only founds clip when he was. I think we have a legit chance to draft him but still feel a player like Suzuiki, Tomasino, or Knight will still be there.

  • Raffydog

    I hope somebody offer sheets Tkachuk and he accepts. I cant stand the thought of the Flames paying millions for Houdini to coast around and disappear in the playoffs. Most overrated player in the league. Sad.

  • freethe flames

    So I read an article that speculates that the Flames are considering bridging Tkachuk. Would a deal of $6.75 m x3 years that pays him $15 up front be something the consider. The Flames keep their internal cap, he gets a boat load of money up front and if he turns into captain material like many predict then he sets a new bar at the end of deal and becomes the new captain.(Taking the C of an aging captain has been done before so it’s not like it is something new).

    • wot96

      That is actually a useful proposal. He gets some guaranteed cash before the next CBA gets signed so presumably if they outlaw the bonus dollars up front he will be grandfathered and he has some cash in his jeans in the event there is a lockout and probably doesn’t lose too much.

      If he has confidence in his play and abilities, then he gets paid. I think that leaves him as an RFA with arbitration rights, assuming that doesn’t change under the new CBA so he will end up calling the shots to some extent.

      It would allow Calgary to sign who they need now and they have a lot of salary coming off when it comes time to re-up Matty. Sounds like not a bad plan, it just depends on whether the money works for him, I suspect.

  • freethe flames

    So now that the season is over the real offseason will begin. The buyout window will open soon, teams will start announcing their qualifying offers, they will start to sign some of their own UFA’s and the list of UFA’s will grow as some RFA’s will not be qualified. Time to fill organizational depth. The Flames have 19/32 contracts signed. I suspect they will try and sign 5 maybe 6 of their current NHL FA’s and probably 5 of the guys on the farm. After that they will still have some contracts that can be filled either for the farm or the NHL. Time will tell.